If one were to stop and ask people on the street about how well high school education works today, you might get a small group that think high school education is working just fine. The majority of people asked, including most parents of teenagers and the teenagers themselves would agree that the education system as it is now is not working very well, if at all. Many parents will say that school is not teaching their child about issues and skills they will need in the future, and in many schools it is agreed that the classroom is more like a place for children to be babysat rather than taught. Even grown, successful adults now have a difficult time remembering any detailed information that they learned in high school; instead citing work and friends as much of what they learned during that time.
There are many reasons for the failings of the present school system including the often used statement “it does not prepare children for adulthood.” This is truer for high school than any other part of the education system. This paper will look at the many different ways in which high school does not prepare students for the future as well as addressing many of the larger social issues dealing with the 16 to 18 year old populations of Americans. Among the issues with the current system that will be considered here are issues dealing with the discoveries about the development of the brain, legal concerns about teenagers misbehaving, and the focus areas of the education system and how they are not addressing the real focuses of the teenage psyche and development.
This paper is a blunt, focused and simple description of what is a large national issue, there is little debate that the United States of America fails in our education of teenagers and young adults. This is a description of the difficulties with this system and will have a follow-up paper with a possible solution. The hope is that within 20 years America will have changed the ways of managing education in order to maximize the learning of each students by encouraging the use of positive reinforcement, proactive self-management and opportunities to look forward to the next step in life. These papers are an effort to bring attention to the problems with the current system and then offer up a solution to better aid the teen population to better and more satisfying adulthood.
Issues with Current System- Brain Development
Issues with the current system have been debated in many different environments and have been studied, analyzed and examined time and again. If you ask a teenager what the number one issue they have with high school, they will say ‘it is boring’. One of the first issues that comes up is that students are not really learning anything in high school classrooms. There have been debates as to the reasons for this including the students not paying attention, the teachers not being paid enough, and the lack of qualified instructors, but none of these make as much sense as the argument about the neuropsychology of an adolescent. Research that was outlined in the Frontline special “Inside the teenage brain” indicated that the development inside of the adolescent brain is as intense and massive as during the first two years of life outside of the womb. And during this time, most of the major brain structure is broken down and rebuilt within the walls of the skull, and American society is also expecting our teenagers to take on more work than ever before and retain more information than is expected in earlier educational settings. In many ways this is asking our teenagers to push a two ton boulder up a hill while suffering from a 5 year long headache.
In an unofficial survey, the author asked several dozen people what they remember most from high school, and the results focused on incidents of dating, school yard fights and working in low wage jobs. Very few people could remember an incident of learning a new piece of information, though they will tell you about a note that was passed to them during a class. Much of the brain activity focus during this stage of human growth is on learning about one’s place in the world (Erik Erikson’s theory of Development Stages). Many of the habits and behaviors that are considered to be within the roles and responsibilities of the person’s social place are trained and reinforced during this time of life. Examples can be found in groups of individuals that don’t ‘fit the mold’ of what is socially expected of the individuals. Comparing the childhood experiences shows nothing, but comparing the adolescent experiences shows that the social training of expected behavior is done with teenagers. An example is that most girls learn to be feminine during the years of puberty and the reinforcement of expected behavior is more profound in not only the home but also the school yard. In the modern day, it is not hard to find a movie or television show that reinforces the stereotypes of much of the roles American society expects. Girls act like girls, students like students, and accountants like accountants.
The current high school environment does not support the development of the brain in the focus points of social interaction and roles of the person in the large social structure. Much of the synaptic pruning during this point in development is focusing on the social cues, traditions, and other stereotypical behavior. Those individuals that were alienated to the outside of the typical social networks often don’t learn all of the details of many roles and as a result, tend to fall outside of the normal behavior expectations as an adult. For many of those people, they are referred to as eccentric and are frequently recognized later in life for strong success financial stories but socially maladapted. In many ways the environment of high schools makes this worse and there is an increased focus on the popularity of a student rather than the success in functional behavior. In other words, teenagers might learn more about appropriate social guidelines and behavior if they spent less time surrounded by each other.
Another major problem with our current system and the brain development of a teenager is that there is too little physical movement. Most of the day for an average high school student is spent sitting, and it does not require a lot of studies to see that the lack of movement is ill-effecting on the students; mentally, physically and socially. Though team sports are offered in most high schools it is not enough for all of the students and far from encouraging a diversity that needs to be learned but instead assists in creating a high form of selective skills, restricting learning other skills. Teenagers should be physically active during large parts of the day, partly to use up the extra energy of growth but also to facilitate and focus the physical development of the brain. For most teenagers’ brains to develop well there should be a diversity of experiences, social activities and physical activities.
Issues with Current System- Theories in Development being ignored
Development theories have agreed that there are many different parts of a whole that work together to assist a person in their growth and maturity through life. Adolescence is consider to be some of the most important time for the development. Up until the 1960’s, the teenage years were considered to be part of adulthood and as a result, most teenagers were treated as adults with adult expectations. In the 1960’s, the view was turned around and as a result, most teenagers are treated as if they were still children. Both views have their problems and the problems have created new problems. One of the first problems is found in a lack of balance in the bio-psycho-social model (the unbalance is out lined in the prior section). At this point in time it is fine for a child that is younger than a teenager but not suitable for an adult. The current system does not maintain a balance for a teenager’s needs; which are somewhere in between a child and an adult.
Other theories that are ignored are Erikson’s Development stages. Adolescence is a time in which a person works to find their place in the larger world and having teenager shuttle between home and school does not encourage self-learning of one’s place in the larger world. The theories and research support that this is the time that people should be the most involved in the community and larger society rather than locked up in a building with others having the same experiences of brain development.
According to Piaget’s theories, this is a time for the development of abstract thinking and comprehension of the emotional experiences. While emotions do run high during the high school, often they are hyper-inflated because of the isolation of the students with each other within the building. Many of the individuals that offered descriptions of their experiences said that they learned more about emotional regulations and abstract thinking while at a job or community service activity rather than the school yard which was often more stressful due to the ‘drama’ that was created in the actions of the other students.
In looking through the information about the current high school system, the author could find no theory to support the current system as being psychologically functionally, or even socially benefiting for anyone but the people that wish for teenagers to stay out of the way until they grow up. This also comes with the problem of ignoring what teenagers can offer the larger society. One of the greatest problems with the function of the current system and what research has shown about teenage growth is that this is a great moment for development and the high school system holds our student in a stationary place for 3 to 4 years, handicapping them much like a prisoner in a cell.
Issues with Current System- Involvement in the community
Ask a teenager for an idea and they will give you ten… adolescence is a time of innovation and creativity. This is not a point that needs be researched because we have examples every year in the forms of awards given to high school students for innovation and creativity. There are more and more contests and competitions each year encouraging innovations and many of the results of these competitions have ended up helping to change and better the world. The loss of these resources can be considered when considering the possibility that each person has a potential for a world changing idea and for many that idea comes during those years of the freedom and lack of fear that comes from being a teenager.
Additionally, there are heard many complaints that teenagers spend too much time living in their own little worlds and not being involved in the larger community, society and world. While there are many adolescents that are proactive enough to find ways to get involved in their community, there are many that don’t know how or cannot find advice to ways to get involved; in addition to having a motivation to do so. There is a strong relationship between teenagers being involved in their community and later involvement during adulthood.
There are many high schools that require community service for graduation from students, and there are some teachers that require service for passing an important class for graduation. There are many churches that insist on teens volunteering and many after school programs that encourage and focus teenage energy towards community involvement. A common penalty for teenagers who break the law with less than a felony is community service. But this does not help with the majority of students that do not get involved in their community. While there are many in the current system that are trying to foster involvement, it is not enough to make a really impact.
Many adolescents have said that involvement in the community, either through work or service, is valuable but they would not have done it if it were not for being pushed by parents and educators (statements made in many different news reports and documentaries). Many teenagers are open and willing to be involved and many would like to be help, if only there is a way. The current system is not supportive of these drives and desires outside of the ways in which there is an effort to manipulate the time during the day for use towards a select amount of after school work and recreation. And because there is such a limited amount of time in the after school hours it is difficult to manipulate and fill the time well or comfortably. Most teenagers wish to have more responsibility like that of a job, a paycheck and involvement and the current system restricts this in addition to holding the teenagers back from many opportunities to grow in working and diverse environments.
Issues with Current System- Developing Healthy Relationships
Holding teenagers back from involvement in the community is not the only ways in which an adolescent is held back from their potential, there are also the skills of adulthood and the development of healthy relationships. Most of the focus of teenagers in high school is not on the school work or the future but on the relationships that are there. While there are some teenagers that have the select skills for being highly successful in the high school environment, most individuals will not develop those skills until they are in the college education world. Most of the skills that are being worked on during this time in the life span focus more on managing interactions with others, and finding one’s place in the social environments.
While many teenagers will claim to know that they will ‘want to be when they grow-up’ most of those decisions will change over time and experience. The idea skills to be learned during this time are: social balancing, social interactions, healthy boundaries, time and self-management, etc. Much of the learning for these skills are best done through practice and step by step guidance. The current system discourages interactions outside of very small windows and has resulted in socialization being done through technology and secrecy. The use of texting, instant message and many other tools has created a new set of frustrations with regards to the limits of communications and healthy relationships. Sometimes it is better to wait for a phone call than believe that the other person should respond right away, it allows time for thinking and processing of the information about the interactions and how the relationship should function.
The idea of a healthy relationship should not be limited to the current boyfriend/ girlfriend but should also include the healthy interactions of friends and family members. It is easy to keep a secret about distasteful behavior when you are interacting with another person through a limited medium like a computer or a phone, but it is harder to keep a secret when the other person is sitting next to you. While using text messaging and instant messaging has its usefulness, there is still a need for face to face interactions, and the current system does not allow for enough time to engage in these interactions. Because there is such a small window for socialization in the current system, many will put the use of their phone on a priority and then learn that is an acceptable behavior to engage in while in a social environment.
Because of the lack of time for interaction, when adolescents do find the time for socialization they will tend to focus their interactions on a small select group of friends and peers. These restrictions help to create a heighten isolation in small tribes or cliques and restricting experiences of larger social interaction as well as having those smaller groups facilitating the reinforcement of unreasonable beliefs about people from other groups. While it is true that there is less overt discrimination in the larger society, there is still a lot of implicit and subtle discrimination that is reinforced by an increase in isolation. Many of the stereotypes about sex, gender and behaviors is reinforced in smaller social groups like those found among many of the high school students now. Most students that have a strong healthy understanding for diversity and the failures of stereotypes have had experiences of which disproved and dispelled those beliefs, and the best time for these experiences are in the high school years.
One of the last areas of healthy relationships that suffer are the family and home interactions. While there are many high schools that have been able to foster a health relationship with family, most teenagers do not have good communication or relationships with their relatives. For many, this lack of a relationship or bad relationship can continue on until middle or late adulthood. Those individuals whom have good relationships with parents and family have had those relationships since the teenage years or before, and during the teenage years there was social interaction to reinforce the positive relationships. The current system keeps students in a state of non-stimulation (leaving them with little to talk about) and uses a great deal of the daily time which additionally leaves little time for social interaction between family and the teenager. If there is any interaction, then it is tense and there is not enough time to be able to relax, or the teenager would like to be in a different place spending time with friends.
One of the great struggles of the teenager is the development of communication skills and coping methods for the future struggles. The social interaction that teenagers have are the ones that help with the education in these skills. Not only with the interaction with the family, but also in social and employment environments. The current system does not support the interactions that many teenagers need to learn and be successful, and will encourage teenagers into increased isolation and smaller groups that increase discrimination. Additionally, in order to be successful after high school, one must be in the extreme with isolation and friend selection in order to have strong opportunities for the future. Time and again have shown examples of how this level of social isolation creates problems. One of the most telling is the use of popular movies as examples, like “Mean Girls” and “Heathers”. Working and being in diverse social environments improves a person’s chances of strong social skills, as could be easily seen by a person living in tight social environments like New York City or going to activities that have a lot of diversity.
Issues with Current System- Social Policy and Legal Concerns
The current high school system is part of several other problems that are found in our society and if this system is changed, if could help to eliminate or reduce the ongoing issues. One of the first issues is with regards to gender stereotypes, of which the current system maintains. It is true there have been efforts made to reduce the gender discrimination in schools, and it could be reasoned out that the education system has helped to provide research and evidence for the discrimination that was not otherwise viable, it does not change the fact that the current system still facilitates and reinforces the beliefs about gender roles. Things like sports, cheerleading, drama, dance, etc. have helped to keeps the restricted guidelines on male/ female behavior. An additional paper can be written about the ways in which high school as it currently operates, works to maintain the gender roles and isolation that are still holding our society back from true equality.
Bullying is another concern for this age group and the current system of high school does nothing to dissuade this behavior no matter the efforts that have been made to modify and adjust the system. The larger structure of the system maintains a tiered hierarchy that is similar to chaste systems and make it difficult to move out of the way of the bullies. Bullies are the means in which most people learn to maintain the system and work the system to keep the people on top in that place. With the high school system as it is, the status of the person within the school is often the same out of the school because the large social structure places the school in priority. This often results in a person learning that the means to get what they want is to aggressively over-power a person and not compromise. These sets of behaviors could additionally be outlined in an additional paper.
Delinquent behavior has become an ever increasing concern for parents especially with regards to drinking, drug use and criminal activities. The concerns with regards to teenagers behaving in a way that could cause damage in the long term from the child and as a result there are ever increasing efforts to restrict the teenager’s movement and freedom. The increases in restriction has also created more desire to commit delinquent acts in order to meet the needs of independence, self-recognition, and autonomy. Restriction on the teenager to make sure that they have no chance of committing a criminal or delinquent act has created further issues of time management, lack of interaction, hyper-focus on productivity, and many of the other social issues that are related to difficulty with interaction and socialization. A common complaint about teenagers is that they will spend most of their time being idle and on the computer, and this could be traced to the responses that society has had to the rising numbers of criminal teenagers. Interestingly enough, looking up recent data from a number of websites, juvenile crime rates are no different now than they were in the 1970s and 1980s. Yes the rates have gone down since the 1990s but there is no difference between the 1980s and the 2000s, though there is a significant difference in daily activities and productivity pressure of teenagers from then to now.
More and more there has been an increase in the idea that in order for a person to be successful in adulthood, there has to be notable success in the high school years. The use of the time and the resulted judgment on the use of the time will have a larger effect on the judgments made from college, work and other adult opportunities. Those who do not succeed with the select skill that are required to be successful in this system have a difficult time with access to resources later when those skills have developed. For most, high school is a holding place to stay until the law says that a person is able to leave the system and move on to a different part of the larger society structure. Those whom do not succeed at this juncture with the limited skill set are often doomed to be left behind for the rest of their lives.
Development research, brain research and sleep research have all come to the same conclusions about the teenage experiences and the adolescent development, it is intense and requires a lot of energy and work to process through. Much of the focus of development during this time period works with this idea of the adolescent trying to find their place in the larger world that they live in and management of the choices that they will need to make for the future. The current education system does not allow for the flexibility that most teens need to navigate these tough learning experiences and in fact the current system does the opposite of help students to develop the skills they will need for the future.
The current system is set up to support a select and small group of individuals with a select group of skills that most teenager’s learn to develop after the turmoil and frustration of the adolescence years have completed. For most teenagers, the year spent in high school are mostly a holding place until the choices of adulthood as bestowed upon them with the graduation or dropping out. Additional, in order to be successful in high school, a student must sacrifice learning important skills like communication with others, including family, and learning boundaries with others to facilitate the developing of healthy relationships.
Most of the high schools require an intense amount of focus on the part of the student and for most students this is difficult due the events going on within the brain and what has been found with the development of the brain. The brain is working double time to develop into what the adult result will be and the taxing information processing and other work expected in high school does not get done well and is disabling to the needs for strong development. Additional stress is found in the difficulties with recovering after high school with the current system, most people who fail to reach the bar of expectations in high school have a more difficult time with gaining success later in life.
One of the areas of the greatest concern with regards to teenagers is the legal issues. More and more there are concerns about adolescent crime rates and the mis-behaving or violation of social rules. The current system does little to nothing to support teens developing these important skills and keeping teens from using criminal choice to gain access to desires and needs. There have been every increasing efforts to adjust the system in order to reduce the criminal behavior and social faux pas, but the statistics of juvenile criminal behavior have not dropped below the levels they were in the 1980s, even with the increased restrictions on students’ time and schedules. On-going efforts to reduce the crime rates of teenagers has created further restrictions on their free-will and resulting in less anatomy and free thinking, creating a new and more difficult set of undesirable behaviors.
This is one of a set of papers on the difficulties of the current high school system. The next paper will address a section of a solution, or better put, a completely different system for educating and making positive use of the strength of unconventional thinking and speed that adolescence offers the world. Additionally the new system will seek to eliminate or better manage the problems that were discussed in this paper. As the current system is failing most of the American youth, hopes are that the new system will provide the future with greater chances for success and happiness.